Dessa’s GMO Dilemma

The humble Cheerio raises an organic debate

To be ready for Cheerios, you’ve got to be able to sit up without support and master the pincer grasp, which means you can pick up stuff with your thumb and forefinger. (Cheerios.com makes it clear that it doesn’t matter how many teeth you have.) The Cheerios brand: wholesome, kid-friendly, good-natured. More sweatsuit than pantsuit. I happen to like Cheerios; my brother and I ate ’em as kids. In his highchair, Max sifted through his allotment, holding up each piece one at a time. If the Cheerio was perfectly round, he’d eat it. If not, he’d drop it over the edge of the chair, without looking, to tumble into nonexistence.  

In January, General Mills announced it would make classic Cheerios without any genetically modified organisms. Thus, an iconic Minnesota product becomes the focal point of the GMO debate, involving lots of clamoring voices, wildly different perspectives, and gads of money.

I’ve never been a foodie or a health nut, but I am interested in the ways money and power are routed through our society. Plus, I participate in the food business—you can boycott Nike or Chick-fil-A if you want, but you can’t boycott groceries. The issue can get pretty mired in technical detail, but it felt important so I started wading in.  I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Then a couple of scientific studies. I tried to catch some wild yeast in a soughdough starter (significant for someone whose palate is more naturally attracted to Reese’s Pieces). Like any neophyte drunk on fresh enthusiasms, I talked about this stuff way too much. I lectured friends. I made Thanksgiving weird.

The CliffsNotes read like this: The people who rally against GMOs are varied. Some people object philosophically (It’s just not natural!), some have environmental concerns, and some worry about how the corporate players behave. The “anti” side is multifaceted. The pro-GMO side, however, rests on very few arguments, essentially: GMO food is safe.

Pause for a moment here. An ivory statuette is safe—for the purchaser. Shoes made in sweatshops are safe to jog in. In focusing on food safety, GMO advocates divert attention from other concerns. Environmentalists, for example, call out the fact that GMO crops helped create the “superweeds” that increase the use of herbicides. Labor unions are concerned about workers’ increased exposure to these toxins. Meanwhile, organic farmers are angry that GMO genes contaminate their fields as pollen blows in from nearby farms.

However the GMO debate unfolds, it should address the ecological and economic considerations, and the human costs that are paid before boxes hit shelves. Safety is a prerequisite for food; it’s not a selling point. Without a full discussion, it’s easy to feel like Max in his highchair throne—safe or no, something might be wrong here. Food, like everything else we buy, has a moral dimension. We not only want our breakfast to be good, we want it to be right.

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